A multiple-scandal test for big university
President's departure could help U. of Colorado recover.
DENVER — Elizabeth Hoffman would rather be remembered for the two faculty members that won Nobel Prizes during her five year tenure as at the helm of the University of Colorado, for new state-of-the-art facilities for CU's medical school, and for a $100 million rise in research funding.
Instead, the headlines this week read that Mrs. Hoffman - who tendered her resignation on Monday - was chased out under a cloud of controversy.
CU, with 29,000 students, has been dogged in the past year by a lingering football recruiting sex scandal, its role a spate of recent binge-drinking deaths, and a public relations nightmare surrounding a divisive professor who compared 9/11 victims to Nazis.
The focus now shifts from her to the question of how far and how fast one of America's best-known state universities can recover from the unusual accumulation of controversies. Experts in higher education say universities in trouble generally can get back on their feet, and for all its setbacks they see Colorado as no exception.
"Most people think of CU-Boulder as a great campus with respectable scholarship," says David Ward, president of the American Council on Education in Washington, an advocacy group for higher education. "There are obviously short-run problems, but if you can find the right person [to lead the school], I don't think those have long-run effects. Once you get through the uncertainty, most campuses recover fairly quickly."
Hoffman and many others hope her resignation will serve as a clear bottoming out, from which the university can rebound.
Still, the challenges are formidable - notably because there are so many.
"What is perhaps unusual about this situation is the combination of the athletics scandal and the provocative faculty member. Both of those touch on larger societal issues, issues that are getting a lot of play currently," says Judith McLaughlin, a higher education expert at Harvard University. "Either one would have brought enormous attention to the university president. Either one would have made her position rocky."
Here's a rundown on CU's woes:
• An independent commission determined last year that the football program used sex and drugs to recruit players. The school's athletic director resigned as a result of the investigation. A grand jury report leaked to the media last week reignited the controversy with allegations that two female trainers said they were sexually assaulted by an assistant coach and that a "slush fund" was set up for the football program with no oversight.
• In the classroom, ethnic studies professor Ward Churchill has proven to be a lightning rod for a debate over academic freedom and free speech on college campuses. He wrote an essay comparing World Trade Center victims to Nazi Adolf Eichmann. Colorado lawmakers have called on CU to fire Mr. Churchill, a fully tenured professor, and administrators are nearing the end of a month-long review of his scholarship to determine whether there are any grounds for dismissal.
• Off campus, the school is fighting the reputation as one of the nation's best party schools. It's a reputation that took an ugly turn this fall when a fraternity pledge died of alcohol poisoning. Six other students in Colorado died last fall in alcohol-related incidents.
These problems couldn't come at a worse time. Colorado faces a $234 million budget shortfall for the coming year, and lawmakers have talked about taking the money out of the higher education budget. That would certainly mean dramatic cuts or soaring tuition increases at CU and many other colleges.
The potential for budget difficulties has nothing to do with the controversies at CU, but then university's scandals and public relations foibles have done little to endear the school to skittish lawmakers.
There are more direct effects.
Entrance applications to Colorado's largest and most prestigious university are down 19 percent this year among out-of-state students and 4 percent among Colorado residents. University officials attribute part of that to rising tuition, but the scandals also play a role.
Additionally, faculty and students say the mood on campus is increasingly dark. "The faculty is very demoralized," said Barbara Bintliff, chair of the Boulder Faculty Assembly. "We feel like the acts of a very, very few number of people have really tarnished us all."
Naomi Lopez, 21, a senior majoring in political science, frets that the scandals are diminishing the value of her education.
"It gets so hard everyday to wake up and see your university in the news," she said. "It's like, when is it going to stop? I'll be proud to graduate ... but it's hard to get past the negative stuff."
Education experts say those are typical feelings for those under the direct spotlight of public scrutiny. The view from the outside looking in, they say, is not that bleak.
New leadership can bring new energy to attacking the schools problems.
"Fresh leadership can help a campus, and different levels of leadership on campus, come together to start anew," says Debra Humphreys, vice president for communication and public affairs at the Association of American Colleges and Universities.